Connecting Urban Planning in China and the United States

On our last morning in Nanjing, we visited Nanjing University and Professor Hongyang Wang, one of China’s foremost urban planners. His lecture used six case studies from across China to describe how he and his planning teams weigh a variety of factors in designing or reimagining urban areas.

What was common across all six case studies was actually that they were all quite different. This was an important point to grasp. Cities are unique and are situated in unique contexts. Some possess noteworthy natural features, others exist in close proximity to neighboring cities, and each has its own cultural and economic distinctions. Professor Wang and his planning teams start design processes by analyzing a city’s local and regional context in order to construct a plan that leverages the assets and addresses the challenges that are unique to the community.

Such sensitivity to local and regional contexts contrasts with the one-size-fits-all approaches that underpinned so much of urban planning, at least in the United States, in the second half of the 20th century. So-called “urban renewal” efforts replaced often well-established and predominantly African-American inner city neighborhoods with generic business districts in cities across the country. In my opinion, urban renewal was a dubious proposition from the get-go, but I’m sure we can all agree that bulldozing neighborhoods in favor of parking garages and office towers is particularly inappropriate in some contexts versus others. Think of Boston, for instance. A city known for its history, tourists and locals alike enjoy walking around its historic neighborhoods that are like no place else in America. In this context, the decision in the 1960s to replace the old West End neighborhood, a community of small streets and tightly packed row homes, in favor of parking structures and characterless condo developments looks especially shortsighted. Among other things, I’d argue that this failure stemmed from not contextualizing urban planning.

Though some of the worst practices of 20th century urban planning have abated, too often American cities and their authorities still fail to think regionally. This is a particular challenge in Michigan. “Home rule” provisions in state law, as well as a history of racial tension in the greater Detroit area, have empowered and encouraged Michigan’s municipalities to look and govern inward. One particularly unfortunate outcome of this is the absence of even a basic, integrated transit system serving the Detroit metropolitan area. Instead, insofar as each city in the region provides transit services they do so independently of each other. Getting across metro Detroit by bus is tremendously inconvenient, if not impossible, and the region suffers the economic, quality-of-life, and political consequences. Professor Wang’s emphasis on regionalism has a lot to offer Michigan.

The implications of Professor Wang’s lecture for Michigan (and lots of cool maps!) made our visit to Nanjing particularly enjoyable. In showing us what a more sensitive, city-appropriate urban planning regime looks like, he pointed the way forward for cities in China as well as back in the United States.

-Tom Van Heeke

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